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Uganda: Children suffering gross abuses in northern conflict

Virunga Mountains

(IRIN) - Thirteen-year-old Adong B fought for the rebel movement, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), for two years after being kidnapped in 2002 from her village in Koch Goma, in northern Uganda’s Gulu district.

In February, she was rescued by the Ugandan army and placed in a rehabilitation camp in Gulu town, 380 km north of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

Speaking to IRIN on Monday in Gulu about her ordeal as a child soldier, she said: "Those who couldn’t carry on walking because of swollen feet were battered to death. I was forced to kill one girl who failed to walk."

Beatrice A, 14, was abducted in February 2004 and made to work as a porter for the rebels. "We walked for long hours, and when you failed to walk you were beaten," she told IRIN on Monday in Gulu. "Those who failed completely to walk were killed. Because of thirst, we sometimes had to drink our own urine to survive."

The use of child soldiers in northern Uganda's 19-year-old conflict has ripped apart countless families and destroyed innumerable childhoods. Relief agencies have testified to children being recruited both by the government and the LRA, as well as being civilian victims of violence.

However, the Ugandan government has vehemently denied the existence of child soldiers in its ranks, and insists that the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) has never knowingly recruited any children into its ranks.

"The UPDF does not have a policy of recruiting underage soldiers," Maj Shaban Bantariza, a UPDF spokesman, told IRIN. "We have never knowingly hired a child to serve in our ranks.

"We have had occasions when telling somebody’s age is difficult, and we have taken up recruits who are slightly underage," he admitted.

In such cases, Bantariza insisted, the UPDF had done everything in its power to prevent these children from entering the army.

"Last year we got 30 recruits who had been duly recommended by the community councils, but after scrutinising them [we found] they were underage, and their applications were turned down," he said.

NGO officials disagree. Father Carlos Soto, of the Justice and Peace Commission in the Gulu archdiocese, told IRIN that it was public knowledge in northern Uganda that the UPDF was using child soldiers to fight the LRA.

"The Acholi [ethnic group in northern Uganda] in the IDP [internally displaced persons] camps say these are destitute boys who have nothing to do – it is a way for them to have a job," said Soto, who has lived in the north for over 15 years.

Chulho Hyun, a spokesman for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), told IRIN the organisation was concerned about the use of child soldiers in the country.

"Uganda is a signatory to international protocols and, therefore, efforts should be intensified to ensure there are no children in the armed forces," Hyun said.

"We are particularly worried about the recruitment of children into LDUs [local defence units], and are actively involved in discussions with the government about [the] prevention of child recruitment," he added.

In 2003, Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York lobby group, found evidence of Ugandan children being recruited into LDUs, supposedly to provide security to local villages, but reportedly used to fight alongside the UPDF against the LRA.

A report in January 2004 by a London-based NGO, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, carried similar findings: "On a recent visit to Lugore training camp 120 children [were identified] among the recruits. Reliable sources also identified UPDF recruits among demobilised child soldiers in Yumbe."

The report added that international organisations had not been granted access to many military training camps where it was suspected that more children were held.

Hyun said, however, that the LRA was by far the worst offender when it came to the abuse of children.

Childhoods of abuse

According to the UN in 2004, more than 80 percent of LRA fighters were abducted children - the rebel group has kidnapped more than 20,000 children since 1988. This has left a gaping hole in the traditional family system of northern Ugandan society.

"Thousands of children have been raped, brutalised, drugged and forced to inflict unspeakable violence on others. The result: a generation whose childhood has forever been stolen from them," wrote Jan Egeland, UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, in the foreword to the 2004 book published by IRIN: "When the Sun Sets, We Start to Worry: An Account of Life in Northern Uganda".

In a 2004 report, HRW said rebel commanders considered child soldiers "cheap, compliant and effective fighters".

Former child soldiers report that children are frequently killed or left for dead if they are either injured in battle, become too weak to keep up with the rebels or refuse to perform tasks allocated to them by LRA commanders.

Another survey in November 2004 by the UK-based scientific journal, the Lancet, found that more than half of 301 child soldiers surveyed – all of whom were abducted by the LRA, at an average age of 13 – had been seriously beaten.

Seventy-seven percent had witnessed another person being killed, 39 percent had killed another person and 39 percent had abducted other children. Sixty-five percent of the children had been forced into military training. More than a third of the girls had been raped, and 18 percent had given birth while in captivity.

Of the 71 children who agreed to complete a questionnaire to assess post-traumatic stress disorder, 69 had clinically significant symptoms, the Lancet reported.

"Since these former child soldiers are often blamed and stigmatised for the countless atrocities they committed – mostly against their own people – their psychological recovery and reintegration can be seriously complicated," the journal warned.

Relief workers in Uganda say children are most susceptible to abduction at night, when the rebels carry out their raids.

Each night, several thousand children, known as “night commuters”, leave their homes for the relative safety of larger towns such as Gulu. They sleep in hospitals or schools; failing that, they sleep rough on shop verandas.

Albert, a father of seven who lives on the outskirts of Gulu, takes care of a total of 18 children, all of whom join thousands more on the nightly trek to the heart of town for safety.

"I am always worrying about the children," he told IRIN. "They are too young to be on their own. There are also a lot of dangers at night. Some have been bitten by snakes, the older girls are disturbed by men and sometimes they are attacked by robbers."

The LRA, led by Joseph Kony, operates in northern Uganda, reportedly from bases in southern Sudan. In 1988, it began its campaign to remove the government of President Yoweri Museveni, ostensibly to replace it with one based on the Bible’s Ten Commandments.

Over the years, however, the rebel group has gained notoriety for its brutality, and it has regularly used torture, rape, mutilation and abduction as weapons of war.

Observers believe that the use of children by the LRA is a deliberate strategy - as the most vulnerable members of society they can be forced to become sex slaves, porters, domestic servants and soldiers.

Various NGOs have set up programmes to try and demobilise, rehabilitate and reintegrate former child soldiers, but the children are at times rejected by their communities as murderers. HRW reports that the children are frequently re-recruited by rebel forces.

Olara Otunnu, the UN’s Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said in February that the international community needed to move its focus from developing standards on the protection of children to ensuring they were actually enforced on the ground. The tens of thousands of child soldiers in northern Uganda are just a fraction of the global total, which the Lancet puts at 300,000.

Free Uganda


  • Violence mounts in troubled northern Uganda

    Ugandan rebels have killed, kidnapped and mutilated dozens of civilians in the north, where the rainy season is bringing fears of fresh atrocities, aid workers and residents said.

    Nineteen years of fighting between the government and guerrillas from the cult-like Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have uprooted 1.6 million people in the north. Following the failure of landmark talks in December, one of the world's most neglected conflicts appears to be deepening.

    "The LRA have increased their attacks a lot in the last few weeks, it is really very alarming. It seems the peace process has effectively failed," a senior aid worker in Gulu said late on Tuesday. "It looks like the rebels are trying to send a message that 'We are still here, we have not gone away'."

    A local security official and a member of parliament said more than 60 civilians were abducted by the LRA last week alone. Local journalists and international aid workers in the north say up to 80 troops and local defence militiamen have been killed in the past fortnight.

    Uganda's military, which seldom acknowledges its own casualties, denies the reports of deaths, and says the abduction figures are also wildly exaggerated. It was not possible to confirm the reports due to insecurity in the areas.

    Aid workers say most of those kidnapped were teenagers, presumably to serve as LRA fighters. And in a tactic that has made the LRA infamous, more than a dozen women have had their lips, ears or breasts sliced off.


    Local officials have accused Uganda's army of laxity in allowing the rebels to move large distances on foot before attacking camps for displaced civilians.

    Moving in small groups, the LRA have spread fear on both sides of the Sudanese border, targeting civilians and abducting thousands of children.

    The seasonal rains began this week in northern Uganda, making travel harder on rough dirt roads, and increasing the ground cover of trees and bushes for the rebels to hide in.

    The change to the wet season has accompanied more LRA brutality in the past. Last February, the rebels shot, burned and hacked to death more than 250 people at one refugee camp.

    Gulu district chairman Colonel Walter Ochora said he feared the LRA could stage more atrocities in the days ahead, saying the group's deputy commander Vincent Otti had crossed into Uganda from Sudan on Sunday with several hundred fighters.

    But the army played down concerns of mounting LRA violence.

    "Otti does not even have 10 rebels with him, let alone hundreds," Colonel Charles Otema-Awany, head of military intelligence in the north, told Reuters. "He is fleeing us."

  • You are so right. A friend of mine returned tonight from a trip to 5 IDP Camps in Gulu Distric, Northern Uganda. In Anaka a boy had just had his lips cut off by rebels. In Alero two civilians were killed when they went out searching for the delicacy of white ants.

    We have been running a secure 'Night Shelter' for a year now in Gulu town for 'night commuters'. Why isn't the world listening to the 'most neglected humanitarian crisis in the world to day' (Jan Egeland UN)?

    Please do get in touch.

    God bless.


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